The ichthyosaur first appeared approximately 250 million years ago during the Triassic period and thrived through the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. This prehistoric reptile could grow up to 25 meters in length and resembled a dolphin or shark. Photo by Anglian Water via Storyful
Jan. 13 -- A routine survey at a British nature reserve almost a year ago ended up turning up a prehistoric goldmine -- one that paleontologists now are calling an "unprecedented discovery."
Last February, Rutland Conservation team leader Joe Davis and his colleague walked across an area of the Rutland Water Conservation Reserve that was being drained as part of routine maintenance. Davis noticed an area that initially looked like clay pipes sticking out of the dirt.
After getting a closer look, Davis noticed the pieces may not be pipes but actually vertebrae, according to the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
"We couldn't quite believe it," he said after the pair also saw a feature that looked like a jawbone.
Davis called local officials who inspected the area and discovered it was a fossil.
The sea dragon lived for about 160 million years before it went extinct around 90 million years ago. Photo by Anglian Water via Storyful
Scientists and volunteers began excavating the site shortly after, revealing on Monday what they called the "paleontological discovery of a lifetime." The team unearthed an ichthyosaur, or a "sea dragon," the most complete to ever be discovered in Britain.
The ichthyosaur first appeared approximately 250 million years ago during the Triassic period and thrived through the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. This prehistoric reptile could grow up to 25 meters in length and resembled a dolphin or shark.
"During this time period, it would have been right at the top of the food chain. It's an ultimate apex predator, perhaps one of the biggest animals in the sea worldwide," paleontologist Dean Lomax told NBC News.
The sea dragon lived for about 160 million years before it went extinct around 90 million years ago. About 200 years ago, the first complete skull of the ichthyosaur was unearthed in 1811 on the Jurassic Coast of southwest England by Mary Anning.
In the 1970s, two more sea dragons were found in the area. Both were small and incomplete. In late 2020, another was found in southern Britain on the Dorset coast.
The complex operation to excavate the new find took two weeks and was done by a team of paleontologists from last August to September. Dean Lomax, a paleontologist and visiting scientist affiliated with the University of Manchester, led the excavation of the fossil, which measures 10 meters in length and has a skull weighing about one ton.
"It's the most complete and larger than any dinosaur skeleton ever found here, so it's a mega-find for so many reasons," Lomax told NBC News. It is estimated the remains at the site are about 180 million years old.
The fossil will be cleaned, preserved and prepared for display within the next 18 to 24 months, officials said. Photo by Anglian Water via Storyful
Previously, ichthyosaurs had only been discovered in the country on England's southern and Yorkshire coast. This ichthyosaur was discovered in a landlocked county around 100 miles north of London.
"It is a truly unprecedented discovery and one of the greatest finds in British paleontological history," Lomax said.
The Rutland Conservation team leader that initially came across the fossil explained that "the find has been absolutely fascinating and a real career highlight," and, Davis added, "It's great to learn so much from the discovery and to think that this amazing creature was once swimming in seas above us."
Outside of Britain., remains of that size for a sea dragon are rare -- but they have been found in other places, such as Canada.
The fossil currently rests in the lab of paleontological conservator Nigel Larkin in preparation for being cleaned, preserved and prepared. It will be ready for display within the next 18 to 24 months.
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